Coping with the dominance of English: a view from Denmark

Posted by on February 27, 2013

Today’s guest post comes from Danish lexicographer Lars Trap-Jensen. Since 2004, Lars has been Managing Editor of Den Danske Ordbog (The Danish Dictionary) – a corpus-based dictionary of modern Danish – and of the website ordnet.dk, which gives access not only to the The Danish Dictionary and the big historical Dictionary of the Danish Language, but also to a searchable corpus of Danish.

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In last week’s post, Michael Rundell showed how English is increasingly used as a lingua franca outside the English-speaking world. In this post, I will look at the situation in Denmark to see if there is something – linguistically – rotten in this state.

Danes, along with other Scandinavians and the Dutch, have a reputation for being good at speaking English. At present, instruction begins in the 3rd grade (age 9) but the government has recently proposed to lower the age to 1st grade (age 7). It makes you wonder: could such a strategy, if applied successfully, lead to a situation where the local language, Danish, could be in danger of being ousted entirely by English?

The answer, right now, is no, Danish is not seriously threatened. It is by far the dominant language and it is used in almost all areas of daily life in Denmark. Although the proficiency level of English is relatively high, it comes nowhere near native-speaker competence. Investigations show that Danes tend to overrate their own English competence, both their ability to speak and instruct others and when it comes to their comprehension in classroom situations.

Nevertheless, the competition from English is a real challenge which has been the object of concern, especially over the past decade. In public debate, people are often worried about the extensive borrowing of words and expressions from English. But language experts deny that this is a real threat: the world has never witnessed an example of language death where a language commits suicide by borrowing words from another language. There are no good arguments for linguistic purism as a way of guarding the Danish language from English linguistic imperialism. The challenge lies elsewhere. A more genuine concern is that of “domain loss”: the situation in which English replaces Danish as the language of communication in a particular domain of public life.

Two official reports have been published on the language situation (2003 and 2008, both in Danish), with analyses, proposals and recommendations. Rather than trying to regulate the use of language through legislation, the government aims to strengthen the status of Danish in the competition with English.

The problem in higher education and research is obvious: a university that wants to compete globally and attract researchers and students from many different countries needs to find a linguistic solution where everyone can communicate efficiently. Today, English must be part of that solution. The answer has therefore been twofold: the English competence of university staff and students must improve and the Danish competence of foreign students and scholars is equally prioritized.

One concrete result of the strategy is the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use, which was created at Copenhagen University in 2008. On their website you can read about the Centre and how they try to navigate between English as the international language and the need to develop Danish as a scientific language at the same time.

In the business world, companies with English as a corporate language find themselves in a similar situation, with a growing proportion of international employees and a globally-oriented market. Some companies respond in the same way and try to develop both the English skills of the Danish staff and the Danish skills of the international employees. However, as there are no formal obligations on the private market, no statistics are available that I know of, so to what extent it happens and with what degree of success is unclear.

A third important field is language technology, a major feature of globalization. English is the dominant language of the world of IT and the Internet, with other languages trying to keep up – often with some difficulty as the technologies required are just as resource-intensive for a small language as they are for a big one. It cannot be taken for granted that what is profitable for British and American companies with a market of many millions, if not billions, of people is also commercially interesting for, say, a Danish software company with only a few hundred thousand potential customers. In other words, language becomes cultural policy and, personally, I believe there is no way around more public funding if Danish is to match English in this area.

But perhaps the biggest losers in the current situation are German, French and other languages learnt as foreign languages. These have experienced a drastic lack of interest from students in both secondary and tertiary education.

For more blog posts in this series discussing the dominance of English, or English as a lingua franca, please see this page.

Comments (6)
  • Great post.

    I’m sure it’s true that many Danes overrate their competence, but as an American married to a Dane, I must say that I find Danish competence nonetheless to be staggeringly good. That said, my circle is a group of well-educated Copenhageners in their early 30s, precisely where the level of English can be expected to be the best. Nearly all of my wife’s friends could teach in English, give a presentation, handle a lively conversation on a complicated subject or otherwise. Any mistakes they made would be so small and/or rare that they wouldn’t even distract.

    Danes’ English is so good that outsiders like me find it hard to practice our Danish in Denmark; the first hint of an accent and the Danish bartender or barista will switch to perfect English. It’s almost annoying, except that I know they’re trying to be friendly internationalists, not to obliquely criticise my Danish (and after seven years, my Danish is definitely adequate to the task of getting myself a beer, pretty much the first thing I learn in any language…)

    Sadly, promotion of Danish is tinted with nationalism a bit; the anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti has made it a cause. It shouldn’t be a bad thing to promote Danish, but this association is one that pro-Danish Danes could do without. The solution is of course a relentless promotion of mulilingualism, both-and not either-or, as you point out. But there are only so many hours in a day, and promoting multiple languages inevitably means not promoting something else with the same teaching hours and kroner. So you really have to want it to make it work.

    Posted by Lane on 27th February, 2013
  • I could not agree more with everything that Lane says above. I am a Brit living in Jutland and it is incredibly easy to find excuses for me not being better at Danish, but one of the difficult things I find is a kind of “lip-service internationalization”. What I mean by this is that a company or other organisation may declare their concern language to be English, but on closer examination one finds that many important discussion still take place in Danish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Danish organisation “should” conduct all their business in English, but if they truly want to be international and declare themselves to be so, and thereby attract foreign talent and compete globally, then it is incumbent upon them not to engage in this halfheartedly.

    Posted by Tom Griffiths on 7th March, 2013
  • [...] fun — Part 1: Unique legal systems Common Sense Advisory glossary for the translation industry Coping with the dominance of English: a view from Denmark From corpus to dictionary: how lexicographers use databases Grammar badness makes cracking harder [...]

    Posted by Weekly favorites (Mar 11-17) | Adventures in Freelance Translation on 18th March, 2013
  • As a regular user of Den Danske Ordbog and ordnet.dk, I’m pleased to see this piece by its managing editor. I work as a freelance translator of the three Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) to English. Most of my work involves legal and commercial texts, and I have noticed the ever-increasing influence of English in these realms. My personal opinion is that Danish is the most threatened of the three over the long term.

    Posted by Charles Ek on 18th March, 2013
  • I wonder if we should see it as a threat or quite simply as a historical development. I am German and grew up bi-lingually, and my impression is that English influence made the German language more accessible, more liquid, more playful. When I read German texts from the 19th century, it all feels clumsy, stiff, not to the point, over complicated. Texts by contemporary post WWII writers are smooth, elegant, more precise and more fun to read – they are more English, more Carl Sagan than Karl Marx. And that goes for fiction and none fiction alike. I am rather relaxed. It is a new world. A different historical period. And languages have never been static. They are alive, and life always means change.

    Posted by Stefan Thiesen on 18th April, 2013
  • For an adult to learn another language well is hard work. People in general won’t do it unless it’s necessary. If it isn’t, why bother? I’d like to be able to read and speak Danish… or Mandarin, for that matter… but it isn’t necessary or very useful and I have far more important calls on my time.

    Posted by S.M. Stirling on 6th February, 2014
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